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B A R C L A Y W. B A T E S San Francisco, California Clark’s Man For All Seasons: The Achievement of Wholeness in The Ox-Bow Incident Like Nostromo and The Idiot, Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident is a political comment which outreaches its own time. Though Clark himself acknowledges that his lynchers are Nazis in spirit,1 the novel is more than an oblique warning of the rise of the European fascism of the thirties. Though its histor­ ical accuracy is praiseworthy, it is also more than an image of frontier tradition growing corrupt as a Western enclave is engulfed by a complex, mature, and nearly alien civilization. It is, rather, a careful assessment of man’s unchanging political potential. That assessment seems at first an entirely gloomy one. Arthur Davies, the novel’s man of ideas, proves too weak to challenge the vengeful Major Tetley. Davies is rather like the Spenglerian man of theory who commits “a huge mistake in believing that his place is at the head of and not in the train of great events.”2 Like his allies Reverend Osgood and Gerald Tetley, he seems doomed to impotence by “a defect of the blood.”3 Art Croft, the narrator and major figure, has more harmony of character than Davies, for he possesses some intellectual ability and some courage as well. Ultimately, however, he has not enough of either. Shaped by a information in a letter from Walter Van Tilburg Clark to Walter Prescott Webb. A portion of the letter is quoted in Webb’s afterword to The Ox-Bow Incident (New York: Signet Classics, 1960), pp. 223-224. 2Oswald Spengler, “What Statesmen Must Know,” in Modern Essays, ed. Russell Nye, (Chicago, 1963), p. 232; reprinted from Today and Destiny, ed. Edward Dakin, (New York, 1926). 3Spengler, p. 231. 38 Western American Literature harsh tradition, he has too long suppressed reason and too long respected the pack, and with the other lynchers he finds the suspects convenient scapegoats. Major Tetley has his way, and innocent men die. Yet i£ savagery triumphs, its rule is temporary. The surround­ ing larger society is untouched, and its official representative, Sheriff Risley, restores law and order in Bridger’s Valley. The lynchers are shamefaced, and a guilty conscience drives Major Tetley to suicide. More important, an ascendant whole man appears in the second half of the novel. He has the reason of Davies and the nerve of Major Tetley. His character has the balance of Croft’s, and yet it is stronger in all respects. Free and guiltless, he is the rational man who can act, the man who controls his world without striking a blow or firing a shot. Though he arrives too late to affect the novel’s terrible events, his presence qualifies the dark vision of man which those events force upon us. As the lynch gang, led by Major Tetley, rides into the moun­ tains in search of those who had presumably shot Larry Kinkaid, embittered young Gerald Tetley unfolds to Art Croft a theory of human nature. Young Tetley contends that men are simply the most powerful of beasts, “the cocks of the dunghead.”4 Like wolves and coyotes, they travel and act in packs. “All any of us really want any more,” young Tetley insists, “is more power. We’d buck the pack if we dared. We don’t, so we use it; we trick to help us in our own little killings” (p. 101). Man cannot buck the pack because he fears that it will turn on him. “. . . even in dreams it’s the pack that’s worst; it’s the pack that we can never quite see but always feel coming, like a cloud, like a shadow, like a fog with our death in it . . . . We’ve all waked up in the night and lain there trembling and sweating and star­ ing at the dark for fear they’ll come again. “But we don’t tell about it, do we?” he dared me. And said quickly, “No, no, we don’t even want to hear anybody else tell . . . . We’re afraid that sitting there...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 37-49
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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